You Already Are

January 30, 2014 § 37 Comments

I've always had a way with the piggies

I’ve always had a way with the piggies

I’ve been terrible about updating my appearances page, which is why there’s nothing on there about this weekend’s NOFA NH winter conference, where I’ll be keynoting on Saturday. Come on down. I have something real fun up my sleeve. 

I’m still wondering how one goes about slaughtering an animal that they have personally raised – seen every day, fed every day, cared for (cared about?) every day.  Is this a silly question?  Yes, there is a squeamish aspect to it, for me.  The only comparison I have, from personal experience, was killing white mice by hand in order to feed the snakes at the nature center where I volunteered/worked as a teen.  I had no emotional attachment to the mice but did make a concerted effort to kill them with the first blow.  Is animal slaughter something one simply gets used to, becoming desensitized to death because of the necessity to eat?  Or is there a something of a ritual to it, a celebration of the never-ending cycle of life; some respectful acknowledgement, show of gratitude, if only inwardly, for the something that dies so that something else lives?  Does your family, Ben, slaughter your animals; or does someone else do this for you?  Perhaps I’m being overly morbid, or terribly naive, or just downright silly.  I’ll not ask again.

The first year we kept pigs – this would have been probably 15 years ago by now – I had one of the few dreams I’ve ever remembered. It was the night before we were to have them killed, and I dreamt that I’d taken them to work with me. At the time, I was still working a few hours per week at a bike shop, waiting to hit the freelance big time. That’s a joke. Because “freelance big time” is an oxymo… Never mind. You got it.

Anyway, in this dream, I’d left them in a cage in an alley behind the shop, and ever half and hour or so, I’d tend to them, give them kisses and scratches and whatnot. Then, inexplicably, I left them in the alley when I returned home that evening. That was the end of it; when I realized I’d forgotten my pigs (Big Girl and Little Girl were their names), I awoke in one of those silent panics you occasionally awake from when you’re dreaming and something really, really bad happens. You know, like when the plane you’re in is about to hit water, or you’re driving with your friend Dirk, and he slides Frampton Comes Alive into the CD player. Again.

We’ve raised pigs every year since then. We’ve raised beeves every year since about the year after that. Chickens. Lambs. Everything we raise dies on this farm. Everything. There’s been a good bit of blood spilled on this ground (though we do try and catch as much as we can for the compost). Some of that blood has been spilled by people we’ve hired to do the job, but somewhere along the way – about 10 years ago, I’m guessing – we decided we should be able to do our own slaughter. So now we kill all our own pigs and lambs. The beef we still hire out, simply because I’m frankly a bit intimidated. They’re just… big. I have shot and bled one of our steers, a particularly suspicious fellow that liked me but wouldn’t let our slaughterer get near him. It went fine.

One of these days, I suspect we’ll take over the beef. Or maybe not. Chickens we hire out too, with the exception of the inevitable handful that either come lame, or escape the roundup on slaughter day. Nowadays, the boys do these for us. Chicken killing is one of those repetitive tasks that specialized ($$) equipment makes sooo much easier, and although we could rent the equipment from friends, we really like the couple that kills for us, and they’re cheap, so we hire it done. Honestly, I don’t really feel as if we need to kill every animal we eat. But I do need to feel as if we’re capable of doing so. And we are.

Pigs are shot in the brain with a .22 and then bled. Ditto beeves. Chickens get their heads cut off. The lambs get their throats slit and necks broken in one swoop. We do not perform any official ceremony. I know folks who light candles and chant and maybe sing, and I respect that, but it’s not our style. Still, we do always thank the animal quietly and do our work as expediently as we know how. Do the animals care that we thank them? Does anyone or anything? Does it matter in the least? I have no idea. I guess it matters to us. But frankly, I’m much more interested in how our animals live, than how they die.

We have no problem killing animals we’ve fed every day. We are not squeamish about it. It is hard work, and a task I’m always glad to have behind us, sort of like digging a big hole by hand, or lifting something heavy. My feeling about death has no doubt been shaped by living on a farm, and in a community of farmers, where the death of animals is never far away. It has also been shaped by the untimely death of a very close friend a few years back, an experience that included lifting him into his coffin and burying him on his land. You’d think such a thing might make one more fearful of death. For me, it was just the opposite.

Death happens. Things die all the time so that we might live. You drive a car whose emissions are smothering countless creatures, including fellow humans, whose very production has killed many times over. We sit in front of computers that are full of rare earth minerals, the mining of which ravages ecosystems far beyond our range of vision. I could go on. The truth is, it doesn’t matter what you eat or what you don’t eat. It doesn’t matter if you wear leather or don’t, if you live in the city or the country, if you read the Bible or the Koran. Things die so you can live. You will someday die so others can live. To the extent possible, our preference is to acknowledge this reality. To take some ownership of it.

People sometimes say to me, in reference to slaughtering animals for our consumption I don’t think I could do that. I understand the sentiment. We inhabit a culture that does its level best to segregate us from the reality of death and dying, and particularly the death and dying that is the direct consequence of our living. The thing I always want to say in reply to this comment, the thing I never quite have the guts to say because I fear it could make them uncomfortable or be perceived as insensitive, is this: Sure you could. In fact, you already are.

Wednesday lunch: Burgers with homemade mayo, steamed beets, roasted potatoes, and kimchi

The Best Damn Food You Can’t Eat

January 29, 2014 § 19 Comments

Dinner. And breakfast and lunch.

Dinner. And breakfast and lunch.

It didn’t take me long after writing yesterday’s post to realize I’d neglected what is by far the most important food product we preserve: Hay. This is no joke, because hay is the foundation upon which a huge percentage of our diet is built: Beef, lamb, milk, butter, cream, pork, cheese, and even vegetables.

Our ruminant animals are fed naught but pasture and hay (well, minerals and water, too, but I’m not sure those count as “feed). We do not feed any grain, and one of the handful of non-negotiable prerequisites for acceptance into our small herd of cows or flock of sheep is an ability to thrive on a grain-free diet. I do not feel qualified to say whether or not feeding small quantities of grain to cows or other ruminants is detrimental to their health and to the quality of their milk and meat – some folks whose opinion I respect say it is, other folks whose opinion I respect say it isn’t – but the way we look at it is, why risk it? Furthermore, grain is bloody expensive and pretty much the antithesis of truly sustainable agriculture (says the man whose truck gets 10mpg. With a tailwind) unless you’re growing it yourself. Which we ain’t. So. No grain.

Feeding only hay to our milkers means we don’t get as much milk as we’d get otherwise; for instance, right now, toward the end of Apple’s lactation, we’re down to about 5 quarts per day on once-per-day milking. Even in the summer, at the peak of forage growth and her lactation, we only get about three gallons daily (we do milk 2x/day in the summer months, but milking twice per day does not equate to twice as much milk). That’s why commercial dairy farms feed so much grain. It’s a super-concentrated energy source that pushes production far beyond what the animal would produce on grass/hay alone. In fact, on a commercial dairy, a three-gallon-per-day-cow equals a call to the beef buyer. Around here, three gallons per day equals butter and ice cream. Hurray.

We feed mostly first cut hay, because that’s what we get via our sweat equity exchange with our friends Lynn and Martha. We do buy in some second cut, which is higher in protein and overall available energy than first cut, but it generally amounts to no more than a third of our total. All of our hay is grown and harvested within a two-mile radius. The ratio of first to second cut adds another layer to our non-negotiable pre-requisite, which is that not only must our ruminants thrive on hay, they must thrive on first cut hay. Right now, we have the best little herd of first-cut thrivers we’ve ever had, and it pleases me no end to see how sleek and fat and sassy they are.

These days, claims that animal products are the work of the devil are thick as the cream line on a jar of good Jersey milk. Not to get all contradictory on you, but animal products raised on grass and hay alone (assuming the hay is sourced on or very near to the farm) are probably the most sustainable form of agriculture known to humankind. Grass and hay are perennial food crops that require exactly zero soil disturbance (something that cannot be said of annual crops like soy, wheat, corn and, if you’re unfortunate enough to actually encounter it, even quinoa), and proper pasture and hayfield management actually increases topsoil (read: carbon sequestration, if that’s your sort of thing). I have no gripe with folks who choose vegetarianism and veganism for health and/or moral reasons. Even though I don’t agree with the determination that consuming  animal products is unhealthy or immoral, I truly respect people who actually think about these things and make decisions based on their determination. In short, people who live in accordance with their principles. In my view, the world could use a fair bit more of this.

Still, I can get fairly worked up by absurdist claims that meat and dairy production are inherently bad for the environment. Yes, it’s true, meat and dairy production can be bad for the environment. But they don’t have to be. Furthermore, just where in the hell does anyone think the fertility for their precious fruits, grains, legumes, and vegetables is going to come from if we do away with animal-based agriculture? Oh yeah, that’s right: Fossil fuel-derived synthetic fertilizers. Yup, sounds wicked sustainable to me.

Anyhow and whatnot. Curmudgeon off. My point is really that all the beef and butter in our freezer is essentially hay, which means that it’s essentially sunlight, soil, sweat, and sore muscles (ok, there’s bit of diesel fuel in there, too). Because we fatten our pigs primarily on waste milk, most of our pork is hay. Our kefir is hay. Our lamb is hay. Our milk is hay. The cream in my morning coffee is hay. In fact, most of our vegetables are hay, fertilized as they are by the manure from our hay-fed livestock. Increasingly, we are moving away from any food products that are not actually hay. Meat birds, for instance, which are essentially grain, even if raised on pasture (oh, the rant I could write about “pastured” poultry being fattened on GMO grain). We still raise some birds on organic non-GMO grain, but fewer and fewer every year. Most folks don’t realize this, but pastured chicken is one of the most energy-intensive so-called sustainable animal products you can buy.

Wowza. I think I’ve gone on ‘bout long enough, don’t you? Especially when all I really wanted to say is this: Hay. It’s the best damn food you can’t eat.

Tuesday breakfast: Kefir, wild blackberry, egg yolk, coconut oil, and maple syrup smoothies

Putting it By

January 28, 2014 § 18 Comments

Spreading choke cherries to dry

Spreading choke cherries to dry

Troutmama left a comment yesterday about how we preserve our green beans, which made me wonder if perhaps a preservation post was in order. Food preservation is a huge part of our life. It’s not our favorite part, not by a long shot (though there are elements of it – like butter making – that I find particularly satisfying), but it’s absolutely essential to our personal homestead economy. If we didn’t preserve the quantity and diversity of food we do, we couldn’t pull all this off. And by “all this,” I mean everything, because without our food stores to rely on over the winter, there’s just no way we could afford to live the way we do. I can’t even begin to imagine how many thousands of dollars worth of food we preserve every year, but I bet it’s the difference between me doing what I do for a living and actually having to work. Ugh. Gives me chills just writing it.

The age-old method of belly preservation

The age-old method of belly preservation

To answer the specific question at hand, we preserve green beans two ways: Freezing and fermenting. We ferment far more than we freeze; maybe 25 quarts fermented compared to 10 or so frozen. Fermenting green beans is particularly easy; all we do is give them a quick rinse, stick them into quart and half-gallon jars (we don’t even cut the stems off) and cover with salt-water brine (2 tablespoons salt per quart). If we’re feeling particularly ambitious, we’ll add some dill and/or garlic.

Anyhow. Our primary preservation methods are as follows:

Fermenting

Freezing

Drying

Cold storage (aka “root cellaring”)

Of course, each has its strengths and weaknesses. Fermenting for instance is freakin’ fantastic and phenomenally fun! It’s also low energy input, incredibly reliable, and probably as healthy as it gets. It’s sort of like the stone axe of food preservation. But there’s also a particular taste and odor associated with fermented vegetables that’s not entirely impossible to grow weary of by, say, the end of January. Primary foods we ferment: Kimchi/sauerkraut, grated carrots with ginger, green beans, salsa, cukes (aka “pickles”), dairy (mostly in the form of kefir). Foods we have fermented that we will never ferment again: Broccoli, fiddlehead ferns, zucchini, peas, blueberries and probably a few others I’ve thankfully forgotten.

Preserving "on-the-hoof." These girls are now ready for slaughter

Preserving “on-the-hoof.” These girls are now ready for slaughter

Freezing is convenient as all get out, and the results are super predictable. Downsides? Well, it’s energy intensive (though given the quantity of food you can fit into a chest freezer, not really all that bad), and dependent on mechanization. We have, count ‘em, five chest freezers. Foods we freeze: Meats (beef, pork and all associated by products with the exception of some dry-cured sausage, chicken, lamb, wild game), butter, some veggies (green beans, corn, peas, broccoli, kale), blueberries, wild blackberries, strawberries, bone broths, and leftover soups and stews. There’s other stuff, of course, but this is the bulk of it.

We’re dying to be trying to do more drying, but have yet to settle on a satisfactory solar dryer design. We dry some in the oven at low temp, and also in the porch with its clear roof panels. We also built a rack over the cookstove. Foods we dry regularly: Herbs and spices, veggies (tomatoes, zucchini, celery leaves, red and green peppers, kale, etc), wild mushrooms, woods nettles, apples, blueberries, melons, beef jerky, sausage, and a whole bunch of stuff I’m not thinking of at the moment. Drying is fairly convenient, extremely reliable, and does a great job of preserving nutrients. We just gotta figure out our system a bit better.

Cold storage. This is a huge component of our preserving, particularly in relation to staple root crops. In our root cellar we have: Potatoes, beets, carrots, and all our fermented foods (once these go through an initial room-temperature ferment, they go to the root cellar). We also have onions and garlic stored in the basement, where it’s not quite so cold and also a bit less humid. And we have a “squash room” that’s even a bit warmer for winter squash. We eat a good bit of winter squash, particularly delicata, acorn, and sunshine.

Firewood and ferments. Two of our most-critical wintertime stashes

Firewood and ferments. Two of our most-critical wintertime stashes

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but we don’t can much of anything (applesauce is the one major exception. Oh, and maple syrup, I suppose). We really, really dislike canning – hot, energy intensive, and not particularly nutritive.

We also make our share of medicinal tinctures and whatnot, including (this one’s for you, Matron!) the nine quarts of elderberry syrup Penny just whipped up. This was not planned, but a friend brought us a huge stash of elderberries she’d frozen and wasn’t going to get to, and so… bottoms up!

Alrighty, that’s about enough for now. I don’t think our food preservation methods are perfect; for instance, we’d dearly love to refine our drying technique to make it easier to dry large quantities without electricity or propane. We’ll get there. And we’d love to figure out how to reduce our dependence on our freezers. But the truth is, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do, particularly in the heat of the harvest, when the quantity of fresh food coming into our house often feels overwhelming.

Monday lunch and dinner: Lamb and venison soup, with carrots, potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms, red peppers, zucchini, beef broth, thyme, salt, pepper

Listen to the Schedule

January 27, 2014 § 11 Comments

The boys were a big help. For about 20 minutes.

The boys were a big help. For about 20 minutes.

The weekend was productive in the way the weekend damn well needed to be productive. A cord, maybe cord n’ a half of wood was split, another cord or so worth of logs was extracted from the forest, and perhaps half of what was split was stacked in anticipation of October’s first hard frost. We skied both days, and that felt fine, and the combination of swinging the maul a few hundred (thousand? I wasn’t counting) times, wielding the chainsaw, and gliding across Melvin’s pasture had me well and tuckered out by the time Sunday evening rolled its lazy way ’round. Last night, in a fit of simpering pathos, I dozed off at 8 and didn’t wake up until nearly 6 this morning, my shoulders aching softly from honest labor. This is good and necessary. I need to get myself work-fit for the months to come; I’ve gone soft from the desk and an excess of merriment, and there ain’t no better way to get work-fit than by swinging a splitting maul. If you doubt me, come on over: We’ve still got about four cord of wood to go, and I’ll be happy to point you down the path of redemption-by-firewood.

Yesterday, as I was splitting (and by gum, it was a perfect day for it: Sunny and cold enough that the wood all but shattered on contact, the moisture contained within frozen to near bursting, so that each round needed only a coaxing blow to separate into pie-perfect wedges), I thought about how the natural order of the seasons is almost perfectly aligned with this life. True, there are times when it feels as if everything must be done at once – May and September come to mind – but the other truth is that one of the most crucial tasks to our well-being occurs when most everything else is at a natural lull and furthermore, when the conditions are ideal for its undertaking.

That’s why I’m so keen to get the firewood put up by end of January (won’t happen, but we won’t be too awful far off): It’s our window of opportunity before the sap starts running, and we’re tapping and hauling buckets every day and splitting wood is about the furtherest thing from our minds. Then comes seeding and planting and shoring up fence and then haying and… you get the picture. This is it, right now. This is the space nature made for us north country folk to do firewood, and we’d be wise to pay heed, lest we find ourselves frantically skidding and bucking and splitting and stacking in June, when the wood is not frozen and therefore splits harder, when the logs must be dragged through dirt and debris and therefore dull the saw chain on contact, when the sweat runs so freely it stings the eyes and looses the grip on the axe handle, when we’ve lost nearly two precious months of drying time, when we’re already flogged from throwing hay bales.

One of the things I love about living in accordance with the seasons is that one hardly ever needs to make a schedule; all one needs to do is listen to the schedule that was made long ago.

Saturday lunch: Venison rib roast, green beans, baked potatoes, kimchi

Sunday dinner: Milk n’ cookies (really) 

Nothing Like Chicken

January 24, 2014 § 20 Comments

Morning chores

Morning chores

Melvin showed up yesterday afternoon around 4:00; owing to the so-called “polar vortex” (otherwise known as January in northern Vermont… I mean really, now, can we just cut the crap with all this hyperbolic weather language?), his tractor wouldn’t start. This was problematic, because Melvin feeds round bales to his 30 milkers, and round bales weigh in the neighborhood of 1,000-pounds, and 1,000-pounds is a good bit more than he is able to lift by hand. Heck, even I can manage no more than 900, and that’s on a good day.

No problem, says I, I’ll fire up our tractor and bring you a couple bales (his bales are stacked at the end of our driveway, adjacent his primary hay field). It’s my pleasure, says I. Over the years, Melvin has done so much for us – loaned us equipment, bred our cows, answered innumerable questions, granted us free and unfettered access to his 100+ acres of field and woods – that it is particularly pleasing to return a small favor. So I bundled up and tromped out the tractor and… well, you can see where this is going. She wouldn’t start. Well, ok, she started, but she wouldn’t stay started. Diesel fuel has a habit of “gelling” in cold weather and I suspect this is what has happened to ours, particularly since it was purchased back in the fall, before the fuel dealers were distributing winter blend diesel. Anyhow. Now you know more about diesel fuel than you probably wanted to, but hey. You never know when it might come in handy.

So what we did (and this was really pretty damn fun) was take our truck and back it up to the big pile of bales at the end of our driveway, and then Melvin and Penny and I clambered up on top of the pile, which is three bales tall and therefore about 16 or 17 feet off the ground at its apex, and pushed with all our combined might until – bombs away! – we dislodged a bale and it tumbled down into the bed of the truck. Then the three of us wedged ourselves into the cab of the truck and drove down to the barn, where I backed up to the opening through which Melvin loads the bales which then get rolled down the stairs into the milk room to be opened and unfurled down the long aisle between the two rows of milkers who eye the hay with a particular anticipation that reminds me of myself when a sausage is just about to come off the pan and the outer layer is just a teensy bit charred and the inside is all soft and hot and full of sausage juice. Yeah. You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

We muckled the bales off the truck and I took Penny home, then returned to help Melvin feed out, since it was getting late. And that is really the end of my story, which has no point except that it is always quietly pleasing to me when the world works like this, when people come together to do something that is normally done by machine, and furthermore when there is laughter and merriment along the way, even in the face of numbing toes and fingers and the knowledge that tomorrow it’s not supposed to be any warmer. Which means we’ll probably do it all over again.

Note: Given the interest in our food, I thought it might be fun to include a meal in every post. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not terribly keen on writing about food, I think because I don’t often know what to say about food. Michael Pollan, I am not. But then, doing this doesn’t require that I know what to say, does it? So, without further ado, dinner last night (by-the-by, feel free to ask questions regarding origins, process, etc of any of the meals I post), which tasted nothing like chicken but was actually quite delicious, especially in the aftermath of the aforementioned exploits. 

Beaver stew

Stewed beaver (well, duh)

Carrots 

‘taters

mystery herbs and spices

Chicken broth

Celery leaves

 

 

Letting Go Enough

January 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

IMG_6300

I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to stoke the fire, something I’ve not done in many years. Our house is tight enough, our stove big enough, and our aversion to a warm bedroom stubborn enough that we rarely stoke the fire between about 8 p.m. and 5:30-ish a.m. Indeed, I cannot even remember the last time I did so. But after so many consecutive days and nights of being enveloped by arctic air, our humble shelter has bled away whatever warmth its mass of wood and insulation contained, and a wee hour stoking is needed to set things right.

Anyhow, during the short period of wakefulness following my bucknekkid antics with the woodstove (Ha! Try getting that image out of your mind!) I came to understand that yesterday’s post told only half the story. Consider for a moment if joyful dabbling – not merely in music, but in all aspects of learning -might, in some cases at least, be a greater thing than enforced expertise is what I wrote yesterday, and I am not here to refute myself. I believe it just as much today as I did yesterday, when I believed it just as much as I did the day before that and the… right. You get it.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Because the truth is that despite having been raised in the bosom of an ethos of dabbling, my sons are two of the most passionate little buggers I’ve met. I’m biased, I know, and furthermore I realize the risk I take in even writing such a thing. Bragging about one’s own children is perhaps as unflattering and immature as admitting to being a fan of David Lee Roth-era Van Halen. I mean, really: What sort of daft manchild would consider such divulgences in a public space? Oh, wait…

But the other truth is, well, it’s true. I recall a conversation I had recently with a neighbor who knows something of my boys’ proclivity for wildcraft and their fierce desire to know all there is to know of the wild creatures and places that surround us. “Your kids are so passionate,” she said. “There aren’t many kids like that these days.” It was not the first time I’ve heard such a sentiment. Not even close.

Look, let’s be real friggin’ clear. Fin and Rye are as imperfect as the world they inhabit and as the parents they were born to. They can be uncooperative, belligerent, and downright rude. They whine and complain and resist and in general provide us with plentiful opportunity to worry that we’ve done irreparable damage to their prospects for survival in this crazy and beautiful world. I suspect this worry is fairly universal to most parents, and in particular those parents who’ve chosen an atypical path, but that’s rather cold comfort, to be honest.

So my point is not that my children are perfect, or that we’ve got it all figured out, or that their future is guaranteed. Rather, my point is that granting children the freedom to dabble does not preclude them finding a passion. Or even many passions. In fact, I believe it is almost entirely the opposite: The more freedom we grant our children, the more likely they are to find passions. And not just any passions, but those that arise from someplace deep inside them, a place unsullied by praise and recognition and expectation. A place where they can love what they love for no other reason than their love of it.

It’s hard, I think, to let go like this. To not worry. To not fear. To not cling so tightly to our own expectations that we burden our children with them. I cannot say that Penny and I have absolved ourselves of these habits. Like all of you, we inhabit a culture that tells us letting go is dangerous. That if we do so, our boys won’t learn what they need to learn, won’t be disciplined, or rigorous, or perform to standard.

But I tell ya what: The longer we walk this path, the more completely we give ourselves over to this way of learning (and believe me, it is Penny and I that are learning just as much as the boys), the less scared we become. In fact, I would go so far as to say we no longer worry whether we’re letting go too much, but whether we’re letting go enough.

Freedom to Have a Little Fun

January 22, 2014 § 16 Comments

An oldie, but relevant

An oldie, but relevant

It was past 11:00 and ten below by the time we got home last night, the sky big and clear and shot through with a confetti of stars. We’d been at a concert, though to call it a concert is to do the experience a grave injustice. All I can say is that if ever you have a chance to see these fellas, do not, under any circumstances, pass it by. We have borne witness to their escapades a half-dozen times now, and it has never been anything but a raucous affirmation of all that is good and joyous in the human soul. Indeed, we are actually scheming to bring them to the homestead this summer, and when/if such a thing comes to pass, I will surely announce it here.

Fin and Rye were the only children in attendance, which I suppose makes sense, given that most young’uns had long ago been tucked into bed by the time the last notes from Son Sanderson’s sousaphone had parted the airwaves with their baritone passage. We take the boys to a fair bit of late night music, in part because Penny and I like to partake of a fair bit of late night music ourselves, but also in part because of their affinity for it. The flexibility to stay out until nearly midnight on a Tuesday is one of the great privileges of determining our own educational path. There is no bus to catch the next morning. There is no cause for worry that our boys will not be well rested for school. There is no need to deprive them of experiences like the one they had last night. 

We are not a particularly musical family, though we listen to music frequently. Fin and I both play guitar in a noncommittal fashion. Rye took banjo lessons for a while, but it didn’t really stick. Penny has talked of learning the harmonica, but between making pack baskets, buckskin shoes, and beaver liver pate, it hasn’t quite risen to the top of her priorities. During the periods that Fin and Rye have taken lessons, we have never required that the boys practice their instruments, though I must admit there are times we considered it. But as it stands, in the absence of studied learning, they might best be described as happy musical dabblers. 

Watching them last night, rapt for two-plus hours and afterward full of glee and anticipation for the next show (the first words out of Rye’s mouth as we left were “When can we do this again?” ), I felt as if our decision to grant our sons the autonomy to determine their own musical paths was affirmed. Their joy was unmistakable, and while I cannot say with any certainty that their joy would have been diminished if we’d cajoled and compelled them into practicing their instruments over all these years, I am glad we have not risked turning their relationship to music into work.

My point is not so much about music, really, and what is or is not the proper path for any given child. Rather, my point is this: First, get yourself to a Sheesham and Lotus and Son show pronto. It is guaranteed to open your heart, no deep knee bends required

And second, consider for a moment if joyful dabbling – not merely in music, but in all aspects of learning -might, in some cases at least, be a greater thing than enforced expertise. True, no one gets awards for being the most joyful dabbler, and you won’t be granted the swell of pride that comes of having your son or daughter showered with accolades and recognition.

But here’s a little a secret for ya: Most kids don’t really want these things, anyway, and if we think otherwise, it is merely a reflection of our own needs projected onto our children, who themselves pretty much want only one thing. The freedom to have a little fun. 

 

 

 

 

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